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Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act

The federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was originally enacted in 1992 to prevent “physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise.” In 2006, lawmakers significantly broadened the purpose of AETA to prohibit any person from “damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.”

The term “interfering with” may include illegal activities, such as break-ins, theft of property and/or trade secrets, destruction of property, vandalism, harassment, etc., which are already protected against under the law. However, under the current definition, terrorism can also include lawful acts by undercover journalists and animal advocates who report on the reality of what actually goes on inside these facilities outside of public scrutiny, such as abuse of animals at factory farms or inside research facilities.

In recent years, lawful undercover investigations have shone a spotlight on topics that include human rights, social justice, animal abuse and threats to public health and welfare. AETA unjustly singles out, and labels as “terrorists,” whistleblowers who uncover and report on the activities of those protected under these laws, even though some of these activities are themselves illegal. AETA protects the interests of wealthy animal enterprises – from agriculture and science to hunting and entertainment – over the truth that animal advocates are seeking to expose to the public about needless animal abuse and cruelty. These revelations should be protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, not made into a felony crime.

In 2006, the term “animal enterprise” was also expanded to include commercial and academic enterprises that use or sell animals or animal products. This broadened definition encompasses virtually every business and organization including grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, research laboratories, zoos, aquariums, pet stores and science fairs. The vague nature of this term makes it virtually impossible for animal advocates and whistleblowers working within the law to know where AETA draws the line. In order to avoid the risk of steep penalties and jail time, AETA often deters law-abiding animal advocates from investigating animal welfare violations and effectively chills their freedom to broadcast information to the public.

The 2006 amendment also increased the already severe penalties for such actions under AETA. In particular, the law now proposes up to one year for offenses that do not involve economic damage and up to 20 years for offenses that involve economic damage. Like much of the rest of the act, the term “economic damage” is overly board and includes loss of profits from harassment, threats or intimidation. While the drafters of AETA strategically included a savings clause specifying that the law does not “prohibit any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment to the Constitution,” the inclusion of terms such as “intimidation” work contrary to this clause. Under this language, peaceful but vocal protesters outside a pet store may be accused of harassment, threats and intimidation that could cause economic damage to the store.

AETA also labels nonviolent animal activists as “terrorists,” a term that is sadly too well-known to the public and is usually reserved for the most violent criminals. AETA not only criminalizes acts that are already illegal under the law, but also creates a new crime that is specifically targeted at animal advocates and undercover journalists reporting on animal issues, even if they are doing so peacefully. This could effectively make a person who reports on an animal welfare issue and interferes with an animal enterprise by causing economic damage to the organization a “terrorist” and subject to steep penalties under AETA. Even if an accused individual is not convicted under AETA, the terrorist label would ensure that his or her reputation is irreparably damaged. The chilling effect of AETA will also ensure that even individuals who work within animal enterprises and observe animal abuse and cruelty or even labor or health violations will hesitate to report such violations for fear of facing steep fines and jail time if convicted as a terrorist.

Ultimately, AETA should be declared unconstitutional and repealed in its entirety because it is overly broad, chills free speech and assigns the term “terrorist” to undercover investigators and journalists who reveal animal welfare violations to the public. While proponents of AETA explain that the law’s purpose is not to target lawful and peaceful protesters, the vague language in almost every provision of the law criminalizes the actions of any animal advocate that remotely threatens the profits of an animal enterprise. In addition, underground advocates who engaged in illegal acts were already prosecuted under other laws even before AETA was passed. Therefore, the practical effect of AETA is that law-abiding animal advocates and anyone who exposes animal abuse or neglect within an animal enterprise could face prosecution.

In the wake of AETA, seven states have enacted similar laws prohibiting interference with agricultural production. These so called “ag-gag” laws were sponsored by members of the agricultural industry and have had a similar effect on journalists and investigators as AETA. Recently, a federal judge found an Idaho ag-gag law unconstitutional because it interfered with First Amendment free speech rights and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by specifically targeting animal welfare groups. A challenge has already been filed against another state ag-gag law and it is hoped that the courts will continue overturning these laws.